[sixties-l] Re: Fashion/Clothes

From: Michael Rossman (mrossman@igc.org)
Date: 01/09/01

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    Karen --.
    As this piece was written in the mid-80s, it summarizes the rich sequence of
    changes during the Sixties quite concisely, assuming the references familiar
    to U.S. readers, before considering at more leisure the "devolutionary"
    changes that followed. I'm sure that more extensive and authoritative
    treatments of this rich little subject have been published (this one was not.)
    Jacopetti and Wainwright's book NATIVE FUNK AND FLASH (Scrimshaw Press, 1974)
    provides a rich and invaluable illustration of the flowering of
    clothing-ornament (not only on denim ground) that marked hippie clothing
    styles (at least in the West). Copies are still available through
    Bibliofind.com and similar used-book-search sites.
    							Michael Rossman
    Blue denim clothes have an earlier legacy, but the modern history of
    blue-jeans picks up with the "original Levi's" made in California by Levi
    Strauss. Stamped with frontier ambiance by the genuine brand-name brand on the
    genuine cowhide patch in back, and the strong copper rivets and buttons, by
    mid-century they were well-established and reputed here as basic pants for
    outdoors work and play, suitable for the country and for male children up
    through highschool. 
    In rural regions it may have been the farmers' sons who wore jeans to college,
    as self-conscious clodhoppers. But in middle-class urban colleges during the
    1950s blue-jeans appeared first as a costume among the small fringe of radical
    and bohemian students, replacing the khaki twills and woolens that had served
    them during the previous decade. Like those Army surplus trousers, which were
    growing scarce, blue-jeans were stout, well-made, durable, practical, and
    inexpensive -- altogether the thing for young adults who chose (or had) to
    value such qualities above style, or to value them as a style. 
    As the l960s began, the political and social radicals became less of an
    isolated fringe, coming in time to set the social style for much of their
    generation. And as they did, blue-jeans came into fashion among their peers on
    campuses and off -- not yet as fashion, but as natural everyday wear. Not
    every young radical adopted the full uniform of the early Civil Rights workers
    -- denim pants and jacket, with a blue J.C. Penny workshirt -- as daily wear.
    But enough did that the image lingers. and surely had something to do with the
    way the average student came to look. By the time two million turned out to
    protest the Cambodian bombings and Kent State killings in l970, it seemed that
    half of them wore jeans.
    Who wore them reflected another change, for by then young women in blue-jeans
    here were almost as ordinary a sight as men. Their taking to pants during the
    1960s was more than a surface shift of style, as it reflected the deeper
    currents that surfaced later during that decade in the women's movement. That
    the pants they chose to wear were so often jeans (rather than "ladylike"
    slacks) was in itself a mildly political choice -- an apt one, considering the
    affinities the feminist movement had with Civil Rights organizing.
    Meanwhile, during the 1960s, a broader cultural mutation was brewing, as
    students carried their changing values and ways on into life in the community.
    By the time the media discovered the Haight-Ashbury and the "hippie" in 1967,
    his and her costume came already adorned with a rainbow of flowers on a
    blue-denim ground. The pants, workshirt, and jacket of the SNCC and Vietnam
    Day Committee organizer were taken on as everyday cloth in the streets and
    communes of the counterculture -- as surplus of a different war, become now
    the raw canvas for art.
    Even more than on any other sort of surface or fabric, the countercultural
    spirits of play and of sensual relish seized on ordinary blue-denim clothing
    to decorate and adorn. Stray holes were patched with gold velvet, casual
    emblems ornamented pockets and knees. Men grown ambitious at embroidery spread
    peacocks down the thighs of their jeans, women stitched the backs and
    shoulders of denim jackets into intricate mandalas and fantasies. Even old
    jeans were recycled, the many hues of their faded indigos pieced into skirts
    and spreads of subtle patchwork.
    But by the time the first full-color book recording such treasures appeared,
    the status and meaning of blue-jeans was already changing again. Some trace
    the change back to when women began to wear them. For though they mainly wore
    men's blue-jeans at first, soon jeans tailored for women were marketed.
    Abandoning the fly-buttons for a zipper, they were often of thinner cloth, and
    of such variable style that the whole element of fashion snuck back in to
    subvert and disperse what had seemed an eternal integrity. 
    Others think that blue-jeans fell to fashion when the narrow legs of the
    original Levi's jeans (and the slightly-wider J.C. Penny's imitations) gave
    way to the flared "bell-bottom" legs that the hippies liked to dance in. But I
    think the real dynamic was much deeper. Already, by the time the
    Haight-Ashbury collapsed in social sewage and the Movement turned to violence
    against violence, whatever in the ferment and vitality of Movement and
    counterculture that could be "sanitized" was being chopped into convenient
    fragments and catagories and sold as commodities to the larger reaches of the
    middle class -- who thus became the consumers of the culture generated by
    their young, or at least of some of its denatured and piecemeal components.
    >From this dynamic the whole "Human Potential" movement emerged during the
    1970s. And as the public stocks of Esalen and EST soared, so did the private
    stocks of Levi Strauss & Co., and of the dozens of other manufacturers who
    jumped on the Bluejeans Bandwagon to peddle what had become a stylish
    commodity at rapidly-escalating prices. Soon the riot of pre-faded,
    pre-patchworked, and pre-streaked-with-bleach varieties gave way to cooler
    variations of hautier pretension, as name brands pursued the struggle for
    stylistic dominance onto the fashion pages.
    The surge in American prices and "status" came well after blue-jeans had
    become a hot item in France, selling for three or four times their domestic
    cost. Since this French passion developed among rebellious young people as a
    contagion from their American counterparts, it's ironic that this transplanted
    affection came back again to America as a signal not to rebels but to the
    priests of high fashion and its profits, that the time and the commodity were right.
    In Soviet Russia too during the 1970s the American blue-jean came to be prized
    among younger social dissidents, as a forbidden expression of an inchaote
    rebellion that took most no farther than some timid, dangerous rock-n-roll.
    Even this was a signal reverberating back to our shores, again ironically,
    reassuring Republicans that blue-jeans were truly patriotic and a weapon
    against Godless Communism. 
    As the 1980s opened here, blue-jeans (or what they had become) had become a
    billion-dollar business. The traces of their former meanings -- as frontier
    and rural wear, then as costume of a subculture in ferment -- were dissolving
    beneath the onslaught of images and re-definitions that established them
    generally as modish wear, featured even in the salons of high fashion. 
    The sensual spirit that had swelled to ornament blue ground was captured by an
    automated sewing-plant, and reduced to inscribing white-threaded hearts to
    stretch tautly across the buttocks of young women and girls, vapid symbols of
    invitation to a mass-produced carnality as shallow as plastic. Even such
    symbolism was eschewed by the high-class marketeers of "designer jeans". They
    prefered to emphasize silhouette and innumerable petty variations on
    pocket-placement and contrasting seam-stitching, aiming simply to place their
    names or monograms on as many rumps as possible of whatever sex, quite as if
    they were branding cattle. (In this they brought the tradition full circle,
    save that the original Levi's brand was for cowhide rather than for customers.)
    In such terms the designers vyed, striving for product-differentiation to
    exploit an overcrowded market. But the truth is that there isn't a hell of a
    lot you can do with blue-jeans, other than add polyester to make them
    crumple-free or crease-holding. They're just plain, decent pants, and one kind
    does about as well as any other if it's not shoddily made. Though the
    marketeers did try, it's hard to convince someone to need jeans that are
    short, long, for parties, for the snow, and of 17 different colors. In the
    end, all the new-come "designers" were reduced mainly to fiction, to selling
    by pure bogus value -- and as their competition progressed it reached
    remarkable heights, or depths.
    Gloria Vanderbilt herself sprang into the arena, presuming that the magic
    brand of one of America's wealthiest families upon the wearer's rump would
    confer desireability -- and she was right, for her jeans sold well. But the
    noveau-riche Calvin Klein maintained his early market advantage, exploiting
    prepubescent sexuality to the hilt with deliciously scandalous pictures of
    Brooks Shield poised for imagination to penetrate.
    In the media ambiance, at least, commercial smut and snobbism had become the
    blue-jean brand; and those who drew their values from this ambiance were glad
    to pay a premium to wear some hyped name around for others to see. In all
    this, the earlier social meanings of this clothing were not simply displaced
    like a fading color, but entirely reversed. Across a gulf of two decades,xw
    the high-cheekboned model posing in a caped pants-suit of sueded denim, with
    coordinate blue cotton blouse, confronted the gaunt- cheeked SNCC organizer in
    his rumpled jeans, jacket, and workshirt. Though both seemed equally exotic to
    those who still wore plain Levi's overalls or lookalikes for utility value on
    the farm and playground, it was hard now to see what else they had in common.

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